Child marriage remains controversial

By Hakim Mahari

On 16 December 2021, Malaysians faced a nightmare as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Islamic Affairs), Senator Idris Ahmad announced the government’s decision to keep the minimum marriage age for Muslim girls at 16.

Some, including myself, who are opposed to child marriage, have panned the news announcement. However, the lack of attention this announcement has received is even more disappointing.

It is felt unjust how certain authorities and members of the public responded to this vital matter that impacts the future of one child who may have had the opportunity to be someone in the world but lose it all in the blink of an eye due to ignorance.

On the average in Malaysia, at least 1,500 children are married each year as of 2018. It should be noted that this figure is not something that we should be proud of, rather something that requires our concerns!

I am curious as to where are those people who were literally incensed and horrified when Libresse, a manufacturer of feminine personal care goods, launched a campaign featuring menstrual pads with vulva-inspired flower patterns.

Also, where is the fury that was spewed when there was a controversy over locally produced whiskey that used the Malay woman’s name, Timah? Has that faded away?

The absence of public outrage prompts the following question: Is the government gambling on the future of our children and young Malaysians by failing to look after their wellbeing and permitting child marriages to continue? Isn’t it true that the Malaysian government does not consider child marriage to be a form of violence?

The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) defines child marriage as any formal or informal marriage (in which a living spouse seems to have been married) between a child under the age of 18 and another adult or child.

A UNICEF report in 2020 said more than half a billion girls and women worldwide were married in childhood, with the highest rates found in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

However, recent data indicates the practice is generally declining on average across the globe.

Not only do these child marriages deprive children of educational possibilities, they also increase the danger of death associated with early pregnancy and motherhood. Additionally, premature marriage can contribute to poverty and domestic abuse.

Despite the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women 1995 (Cedaw) and Convention on the Rights of the Child 1994 (CRC), which guarantee and protect the rights of women and children in Malaysia, there is still no assurance whether there will be a bright day promised for the children here. 

Even the Majlis Agama Islam Wilayah Persekutuan (MAIWP) stated that child marriage should not be practised, with exceptions and in 2014, the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) also declared child marriage as an ‘unhealthy’ practice. 

JAKIM added that health experts and psychologists confirmed the existence of physical and mental health problems in child marriage.

On the other hand, Malaysia’s neighbours, particularly Thailand and the Philippines, have taken the initiatives to end child marriage.

The child marriage has become illegal in the Philippines on 6 January 2022 as the law banning the practice took effect in a country where one in six girls enters wedlock before the age of 18.

It was a positive start to the new year in the Philippines, since their administration seemed to be compliant with international accords on women’s and children’s rights.

Meanwhile in Thailand, the Islamic council known as the Central Islamic Council of Thailand (CICOT) has issued a nationwide ban on child marriage following the new regulation banning children under the age of 17 from marriage.

On reflection, I see the future of Malaysian children in a society where everyone has turned a deaf ear to this issue. Is there any guarantee that they will have a chance to achieve their own success by focusing on self-development rather than early marriage?

Why is it considered insulting to educate women and girls about their own reproductive systems (via thorough sexual education programmes), yet totally well enough to send children into marriage with no understanding of how things function “down there”?

It’s an odd paradox that the concept of giving children the proper names for their bodily parts is scorned, yet having sex with a child is acceptable — as long as she is legally married, of course!

All of the answers for the above questions will keep floating around, while waiting for the government to kick up its plan in bringing a better future for all of us as what is promised in “Keluarga Malaysia” which we wouldn’t know when that will happen.

There has not been enough encouragement from the federal government for states that have not yet committed in solving this issue. Selangor is the only state to-date that has raised the age of marriageability for Muslim couples from the conventional minimum of 16 to 18.

The truth has prevailed, and we all know how contentious the issue of child marriage has been. All hopes are now pinned on the government to act with greater zeal in resolving this issue.

Given the circumstances as elaborated, let us simplify the matter and state unequivocally that child marriage is not acceptable. ***

(This article is written as part of individual assignment series for Feature Writing class)

Hakim Mahari

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